PHILADELPHIA - They addressed nagging issues about offensive rhythm and accumulated rust with aplomb. Now comes the hard part for the Philadelphia Eagles - answering the three-year brain drain about why they can't win the NFC championship game.
The Eagles were back in familiar territory after whipping the mistake-prone Minnesota Vikings, 27-14, yesterday in an NFC semifinal before 67,722 at Lincoln Financial Field.
They are in the NFC championship game for the fourth straight year, at home for the third year in a row, and will assume the favorite's role over the Atlanta Falcons, who arrive next week via a 47-17 rout of the St. Louis Rams on Saturday.
For the third consecutive year, an undervalued team from the NFC South stands between the Eagles and the Super Bowl. But if the Eagles (14-3) were feeling the heat in the blast furnace of the postseason, they weren't letting on.
Not wide receiver Freddie Mitchell, anyway, or middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, two relatively new ingredients in the team's championship game formula.
"I'm trying to take the humble approach," Mitchell said after a two-touchdown effort that narrowly missed being a hat trick. "I definitely want to say hi to all my new friends out there, the people that doubted me and the other receivers."
When Trotter showed up in the post-game interview room, resplendent in matching mink coat and hat, he was the picture of cool. Uptight? Not this year.
"You can't play this game tense, worried about losing," he said.
Mitchell became a starter a month ago when Pro Bowl receiver Terrell Owens tore two ligaments in his right ankle and snapped his fibula. Yesterday, he made plays that Owens would have liked to have made.
There was a 2-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Donovan McNabb in the first quarter, and an even better catch in the end zone of a ball that squirted out of tight end L.J. Smith's hands at the 5-yard line. The resulting touchdown was actually a fumble recovery, even though the ball never touched the ground.
Mitchell had a third touchdown briefly in the third quarter, but a Vikings' replay challenge canceled the score when it showed he lost control of the ball just short of the goal line.
Still, with five catches worth 65 yards, it was a banner day, and he reveled in the moment.
"I just want to thank my hands for being so great," Mitchell deadpanned. "I'm just happy we won."
Trotter was with the Eagles in their championship game loss at St. Louis in 2001, but left as a free agent and spent the next two years with the Washington Redskins. His return this season has rejuvenated a defense that played well but not always good enough.
Trotter led the charge against Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper with an interception, a half-sack, seven tackles and two passes defensed.
"You saw Jeremiah out there," coach Andy Reid said. "He was out of his mind. He was playing like crazy, and I thought he did a heck of a job."
The Eagles blitzed Culpepper into one of his worst games of the season. He was 24-for-46 for 316 yards, but was intercepted twice and sacked three times.
Wide receiver Randy Moss, who created a furor last week in Green Bay with a pantomimed mooning of Packers fans, was the missing link in the Vikings' big-play offense. He had just three catches for 51 yards, but was running at nearly half-speed because of an ankle injury he incurred last week.
"I tried to get it to him, and he just didn't have the explosive game that we look for and that he looks for," Culpepper said.
On a day when the Vikings (9-9) rolled up 108 penalty yards and scored just one touchdown on three trips inside Philadelphia's 20, Moss played an unwitting role in one of their biggest mistakes.
Faced with fourth-and-goal at the 3 late in the first half, Minnesota coach Mike Tice called for a fake field goal that required some deception from Moss, who was supposed to walk toward the sideline but not leave the field, then run a route.
When an extra Vikings lineman found his way onto the field, however, Moss had to leave or be flagged as a 12th player. Gus Frerotte, the holder and backup quarterback, did not realize Moss was not on the field.
"He stepped out and I turned around to throw him the ball and he was not there. I was kind of stuck," Frerotte said.
So were the Vikings. Instead of cutting into a 21-7 deficit, they came away with no points at all and Culpepper threw interceptions on the Vikings' first two possessions of the second half.
Playing without Owens was not the traumatic adjustment it might have been after a month-long rest for most of the Eagles' stars. They scored touchdowns on three of their first four possessions, but could have had more. McNabb, who threw for 286 yards and two touchdowns, knows what comes next.
"I think as a unit, we've answered a lot of questions," he said. "But there will be more questions thrown out there."